Sunday Smorgasbord


By bigmick (flickr) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons

Last week, NYC students returned to school. I wish the best of luck to a fresh new start to the school year to students and teachers! While you recharge and steel yourselves for the week ahead (or celebrate Eid), here’s our weekly roundup of delectable Ed and other delights from across the Net.

Students are not hard-wired to learn in different ways – we need to stop using unproven, harmful methods

I can’t tell you the number of debates I’ve had with otherwise very intelligent and well-informed educators about the inefficacy of “learning styles.” While I agree that much of the onus is on teachers to be “critical consumers,” I also bring some measure of blame to our ed schools and district leaders. I had a professor who oriented her entire syllabus around videos from Mel Levine’s All Kinds of Minds’ “Schools Attuned” program, as if it were the gospel. Speaking of which, did you know that the NYC Department of Education once spent quite a bit of money on a 5 year contract with Schools Attuned? It’s frankly embarrassing.

Teachers need to be critical consumers of research – as with medicine, lives are also at stake – yet with the best will in the world and without the knowledge and time to do so, decisions may be made to adopt new approaches that are not only ineffectual, but can actually do harm. A case in point is learning styles. 

Failure to Replicate Values Affirmation as an Countermeasure to Stereotype Threat

Daniel T. Willingham casts some shade on the “stealthy intervention” of value affirmation, suggesting that it’s simply too good to be true.

Value affirmation is a short intervention intended to counter the “stereotype threat.” It is a simple exercise that I have used multiple times with students, generally right before state testing, since I first read about the research: you give students a piece of paper and ask them to think of something important to them, and then write for 10-15 minutes about those values.

Another intervention along those lines I’ve also used is where you just ask students to “write it out” for 10 minutes. I use both of these interventions in the hope that at the very least, it can alleviate the anxiety they feel when state testing rolls around.

The good news is that unlike learning styles, a values affirmation exercise is not going to harm children, and it only takes 15 minutes max. So I say keep on truckin’ on this one. If it can alleviate some of our children’s anxiety, then it’s done something good.

The door is not closed on the values affirmation intervention, but much work is to be done if it is to prove useful in schools.

A Worrying Trend for Psychology’s “Simple Little Tricks”

Science writer Ed Yong (excited to read his new book about the ecosystems of the body) also reports on the research above, as well as other studies that question so-called “wise interventions” that have claimed to have a significant long-term academic impact.

I’ve written about these sort of “stealthy interventions” before, and made a concerted effort at my last school to promote these practices, so it’s certainly disappointing to hear this news. But it certainly fits in with the one of the few things I can say with certainty about the messy world of education: improving schools requires lots and lots of hard work. There are no short cuts.

It seems, then, that wise interventions are like sensitive and delicate flowers, only able to bloom if the conditions are just right. Walton, Cohen, and their peers have always argued as much. But that’s in itself a problem. If it is so hard for teams of experienced and competent social scientists to get these techniques to work, what hope is there for them to be used more broadly?

Books: How Repeated Evictions Impact Students’ Lives

Alexander Russo reviews Matthew Desmond’s EvictedSounds like a fit companion to Edbuild’s recent report on segregated school districts.

Evicted shows that it’s not just slumlords who are culpable for the deplorable, exploitative situation. The legal system, law enforcement, and even social support agencies all play a role in creating and perpetuating things — and tolerating what’s clearly intolerable.

Putting Student-Produced OER at the Heart of the Institution

Mike Caulfield with trenchant insight into the critical function that institutions can serve—especially in regards to public services and goods.

People make things possible. Institutions make them last.

I had worked my heart out for this thing, evangelized widely, written up the prototypes and the stubs, explained it to the college. But I hadn’t institutionalized it. And so it was bound to die the minute I left.

. . . while we like to scoff at all the mucky-muck bureaucracy around training, budgets, policy and messaging, it’s precisely that stuff that prevents your dream initiative of today morphing into rotting infrastructure of tomorrow. It’s all too easy in this business to end up the new interactive whiteboard — bought one year as the must-have accessory and abandoned the next.

Noise: How to Overcome the High, Hidden Cost of Inconsistent Decision Making

Daniel Kahneman and others provide advice on overcoming human bias and inconsistency when making professional judgments.

This is certainly relevant to education, where educators make constant evaluative decisions about children. Grading papers, for example, can be highly subjective and subject to the “noise” described in this article. I, for one, welcome the day when algorithms will grade student writing, leaving teachers to focus on the much more critical task of providing ongoing opportunities for feedback and practice.

Where there is judgment, there is noise—and usually more of it than you think. As a rule, we believe that neither professionals nor their managers can make a good guess about the reliability of their judgments.

. . . Algorithms are sometimes used as an intermediate source of information for professionals, who make the final decisions. One example is the Public Safety Assessment, a formula that was developed to help U.S. judges decide whether a defendant can be safely released pending trial. In its first six months of use in Kentucky, crime among defendants on pretrial release fell by about 15%, while the percentage of people released pretrial increased. It’s obvious in this case that human judges must retain the final authority for the decisions: The public would be shocked to see justice meted out by a formula.

Uncomfortable as people may be with the idea, studies have shown that while humans can provide useful input to formulas, algorithms do better in the role of final decision maker.

Friedrichs v CTA, and Thinking Probabilistically

By Matěj Baťha (Own work) [CC BY-SA 2.5 (, via Wikimedia Commons

Yeah, that headline was a mouthful.

But here’s the thing. You’re going to hear a lot of ed folks declaiming on the potential outcome of the Friedrichs v California Teachers Association SCOTUS case over the next few days. For good reason, as this is a case that may well prove to be more determinative of the future of public education in this country than ESSA.*

I’ve been reading Daniel Kahneman’s excellent Thinking, Fast and Slow lately**. Kahneman’s book is all about ideas we’ve touched on before here, such as cognitive bias and uncertainty. We’ve also looked at how “probabilistic thinking” could be used to overcome bias. So when I fortuitously came across this article on how “superforecasters” use probabilistic thinking, as well as a “base rate,” or “reference class” in order to make more accurate predictions, it jibed well with my understanding, and I think there’s useful lessons to heed as Friedrichs case is heard over the course of this week.

Rather than ideologically proclaiming sweeping predictions, as the experts are wont to do, “superforecasters” are less certain about their predictions, which ironically makes them better predictors. Professor Philip Tetlock delineates between “hedgehogs” and “foxes,” and notes that superforecasters are more akin to foxes:***

According to Tetlock, foxes are more pragmatic and open-minded, aggregating information from a wide variety of sources. They talk in terms of probability and possibility, rather than certainty, and they tend to use words like “however,” “but,” “although” and “on the other hand” when speaking. . . 

Unfortunately, most of the predictions you see in the media lack the specificity necessary to test them, like a specific time frame or probability, Tetlock says. . . 

Instead, Tetlock advocates for something he calls “adverserial collaboration” — getting people with opposing opinions in an argument to make very specific predictions about the future in a public setting, so onlookers can measure which side was more correct.

What does this have to do with Friedrichs? Well, I would suggest asking education “experts,” who will write about their ideas on the case, to assign a probability to their predicted outcome.

Based on my own, extremely limited understanding of the case, I think there’s a 65% chance that Friedrichs will win. I could well be completely wrong. But you’ve got my prediction here, in writing, with a timestamp on it, so you can hold me accountable to this.

I’ll write more on my thoughts on the case soon, but in the meantime, my thinking on Friedrichs v. CTA in a nutshell:

I think public sector unions need to change and adapt much more rapidly to a changing workforce and economy, but I believe strongly in the necessity for unions to present a necessary counterbalance to government and private financial interests. If Friedrichs wins, as I’m afraid she might, then we will witness a drastic further decline in the power of unions in our country. I believe this will be to the detriment of the long-term interests of our nation.

The only commentator I’ve seen thus far who’s beginning to think ahead to this outcome is Dan Weisberg of TNTP. He doesn’t assign a probability to the outcome, but implies it when he says the following:

Unfortunately for the unions, at least five Supreme Court justices appear to be more sympathetic to the teachers’ arguments than I am. The Court practically invited this challenge when it stopped just short of striking down agency fees in a similar case a few years ago.

I’m hoping our unions are already preparing for the worst, because no amount of impassioned op-eds can influence the outcome at this point.

*my apologies to all non-US residents for the US-specific jargon in this post.

**thanks to Deputy Chancellor Josh Wallack, who recently bestowed the book on educators at a dinner hosted by the NYC DOE Office of Leadership.

***We’ve looked at hedgehogs and foxes here before:


UPDATE 2/13/16:

Justice Scalia has just died, so that completely changes the odds. While I had first assigned a 65% probability to Fredrichs winning this case, my forecast has shifted closed to 40%. Read more on SCOTUSBlog: “The most immediate and important implications involve that union case.  A conservative ruling in that case is now unlikely to issue.”


Our unlimited ability to ignore our ignorance

“You cannot help dealing with the limited information you have as if it were all there is to know. You build the best possible story from the information available to you, and if it is a good story, you believe it. Paradoxically, it is easier to construct a coherent story when you know little, when there are fewer pieces to fit into the puzzle. Our comforting conviction that the world makes sense rests on a secure foundation: our almost unlimited ability to ignore our ignorance.”

—Daniel Kahneman, Thinking, Fast and Slow

Money Primes Selfishness

“The general theme of these findings is that the idea of money primes individualism: a reluctance to be involved with others, to depend on others, or to accept demands from others. The psychologist who has done this remarkable research, Kathleen Vohs, has been laudably restrained in discussing the implications of her findings, leaving the task to her readers. Her experiments are profound—her findings suggest that living in a culture that surrounds us with reminders of money may shape our behavior and our attitudes in ways that we do not know about and of which we may not be proud. Some cultures provide frequent reminders of respect, others constantly remind their members of God, and some societies prime obedience by large images of the Dear Leader. Can there be any doubt that the ubiquitous portraits of the national leader in dictatorial societies not only convey the feeling that “Big Brother Is Watching” but also lead to an actual reduction in spontaneous thought and independent action?”

—Daniel Kahneman, Thinking, Fast and Slow